Literature, art, and possibly film too, would be much poorer without walking. Humanist philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau walked, as did Charles Dickens, whose method of “botanising on the asphalt” was seized on by Walter Benjamin in his classic study of Charles Baudelaire, another walker.
Writers Will Self and Ian Sinclair walk, as too did Werner Herzog, famously, in 1974. Ivan Vladislavić also walks. Like Dickens, who he appreciatively and repeatedly quotes in Portrait with Keys, Vladislavić reaches beyond “the condition of the observer” (Benjamin again) when he walks. However, as a singular act of radical will, Marina Abramović’s three-month-long walk across the Great Wall of China in 1988 to meet her long-time collaborator Ulay, trumps the doings of all these men. Richard Long is another artist who walks. His practice is a record of his deep encounters in the natural world, which is both his studio and philosophical home. Long has walked in many places, including India, Mongolia, Bolivia and South Africa. His first visit locally was in 2004, to the Karoo, his second to the Nirox artist residency north of Johannesburg last year, where he spent nineteen days and made a total of sixty walking trips. His routine was simple: every morning Long would stuff his milk pail with food and head off into the grassy wilderness of this nature conservancy near the Cradle of Humankind, collecting stones, keeping a list of the animals and objects he saw, and also photographing his footprint in mud. When not walking, he painted, using his finger to create spiralling and radial patterned marks with white and mud-brown paint.Three of these glass-framed paintings are displayed adjacent a large roiling mud painting applied over a black circular ground and directly painted onto the white wall of the National Gallery, host venue for his exhibition Karoo Highveld. Long’s first solo exhibition in Africa is a patchy affair, partly because it rehearses an ongoing dilemma in performative practice. This sounds solemn. Let me rephrase my point as a question. How does one record, for posterity, an action that involves simply, irreducibly, walking? Abramović made a 16mm silent colour film. Long shows photographs and offers a radial list of all the things he saw on his walks: sable antelope, a spotted eagle owl, pylons, cairns, irrigation channels and so on. What we see and experience in the gallery isn’t the thing itself, just its visual surrogate.This statement is not entirely correct. Long’s show also includes paintings that, in their simplicity, gesture towards the primal essence of mark-making. His large in situ mud painting recalls the Japanese action painter Kazuo Shiraga, although Long’s work is more composed, restrained too. There are also sculptural works, including a bone with five thumbprints on its surface affixed to a wall. The most striking sculptural work is also the biggest. A dun-coloured circular composition made of variegated stones collected at Nirox, this sculpture, which features a zigzagging tail made from darker, chocolate-coloured stones, occupies almost an entire room. Elegant, simple, familiar, the work does struggle somewhat in the protestant environments of the gallery, especially with the parquet flooring and distractions of the poster-like display of accompanying photographs. Gesturing outwards, to places visited by Long, these photographs falteringly communicate the solitude, indifference and fragile plenitude of the natural world, Long’s most stable and reliable exhibition venue.Sean O’Toole is a journalist and writer reading his PhD at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town.